Soccer·Analysis

Priestman spot on in Canada's conquering of Olympic women's soccer tournament

Canada's women's soccer team became the reigning Olympic champion after defeating Sweden in an epic penalty shootout on Friday. So what now? The 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand is just over the horizon, and the 2024 Paris Olympics will arrive sooner than you think.

35-year-old English manager silenced all doubts after Canadians won Tokyo 2020 gold

Canada's women's soccer coach Bev Priestman applauds prior to the start of the gold-medal match against Sweden on Friday. Canada would win 3-2 through a penalty shootout. (Loic Venance/AFP via Getty Images)

When Julia Grosso's shot sailed into the back of the net, Canadian women's team coach Bev Priestman set off like she was running in the 100-metre final at the Tokyo Olympics to join the mob of players who were celebrating with the young midfielder.

Grosso had just scored to seal Canada's 3-2 win over Sweden in an epic penalty shootout in Friday's gold medal match in Yokohama, thus fulfilling a challenge Priestman set out for her side when she first took over as coach last October to "change the colour of the medal."

Priestman took time to soak it all in and enjoy the moment, and deservedly so, as she helped guide Canada (No. 8 in the current FIFA world rankings) to consecutive victories over No. 7 Brazil, the top-ranked United States, and fifth-ranked Sweden to win gold after the Reds took bronze at London 2012 and Rio 2016.

But as a disciple of John Herdman, Priestman's mind was probably already turning over — even for a brief few seconds — once the moment passed.

WATCH | Canada stuns Sweden to capture gold:

Herdman was noted for his meticulous attention to detail and tireless preparation while in charge of the women's team from 2011 to 2018, helping Canada win back-to-back bronze medals.

As someone who served as an assistant under Herdman and who has known him since she was a teenager (they're both natives of Consett, England), Priestman was likely thinking ahead and beginning to map out the team's immediate and long-term future.

Clearly, Canada is in very good hands with Priestman at the helm. At 35, Priestman has already won Olympic gold, something that coaches nearly twice her age and with much more experience never accomplish.

Any doubts about Priestman since her appointment — and there were plenty, as this was her first head coaching gig at senior team level — surely must have evaporated after Canada's golden performance at the Tokyo Olympics.

The Englishwoman got her tactics and team selections absolutely spot on in this tournament, brilliantly combining the roster's veterans with its core of promising young players.

Deploying Christine Sinclair in a withdrawn role as opposed to a classic No. 9 forward proved to be an astute decision, as did replacing Shelina Zadorksy with Vanessa Gilles to partner Kadeisha Buchanan in the centre of defence right before the knockout stage.

Priestman also showed a lot of bravery in giving Sophie Schmidt a minimal role in Tokyo. Schmidt has 200-plus caps and two Olympic bronze medals, so the popular line of thinking was that she would have to prominently feature.

But Priestman didn't take into account her reputation, and only used Schmidt in one game. Likewise, 20-year-old forward Jordyn Huitema, tabbed as the heir apparent to Sinclair (rather unfairly) was limited to brief cameos, Priestman unswayed by the hype surrounding the youngster.

There was also some media pressure on Priestman ahead of the Olympics to start youngster Kailen Sheridan ahead of Stephanie Labbé.

WATCH | Head coach Bev Priestman on the impact of Canada's victory:

Again, Priestman knew best, giving the gloves to Labbé, who proved to be Canada's most important player of the tournament, coming up with some big saves in both of Canada's penalty shootout wins over Sweden and Brazil.

So, what now for Canada?

The 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand is just over the horizon, and the 2024 Paris Olympics will arrive sooner than you think.

Priestman has a gold-plated foundation upon which to build this team and take a crack at doing something Canada has never accomplished: Win the ultimate prize in women's soccer, the World Cup.  

Sinclair's swan song?

The big question is how much longer, or even if, Sinclair will be along for the ride.

The native of Burnaby, B.C. is 38 — but she's a young 38 and a physical specimen. Winning a gold medal is a great way to cap off a brilliant international career.

But the will to win and compete still burns brightly inside the Canadian icon, and you get the sense that she's not quite ready to walk away.

It would hardly come as a surprise to see a 40-year-old Sinclair compete in her sixth World Cup in two years.

Whether Sinclair will still be around or not seems immaterial at this point, with all due respect to Canada's legendary captain.

WATCH | Christine Sinclair reflects on gold-medal win:

At previous major tournaments, Sinclair carried Canada on her back.In Tokyo, others stepped up to lead Canada in critical moments of the tournament, while Sinclair played a secondary, yet still important role.

In Friday's post-match press conference, Sinclair admitted that she has felt the pressure of Canada's hopes for success hinging so much on her leading the team, but that it wasn't the case in Japan.

"Honestly, that's something I felt in the past, but not with this group. This group is loaded … I don't need to play out of my skin for us to win. It's great to be a part of that," Sinclair said.

Priestman concurred: "The young players coming through tonight stepped up and delivered … It's a very special group."

Amongst the youngsters who stepped and delivered were Grosso (20 years old), Deanne Rose (22) and Jessie Fleming (23). All three held their nerve in sports' most tension-filled situation — the penalty shootout — to convert their chances.

More than that, Friday's game turned in Canada's favour when Priestman introduced Grosso and Rose as second half substitutes.

Grosso's elegance on the ball and fearlessness drove the Canadian attack forward, while Rose's speed and acceleration stretched the Swedish defence.

WATCH | Julia Grosso on game-winning penalty kick:

Another of Canada's young stars who wrapped themselves in glory was Fleming.

The diminutive midfielder has carried a huge weight on her shoulders since making her national team debut as a 15-year-old on Dec. 15, 2013, in a game against China.

She's long been viewed as the lynchpin of Canada's next generation of young players, the one who will lead the team once Sinclair finally retires.

But Fleming has failed to live up to the hype and expectations. In recent years, as Canada has struggled to create, she has shouldered a large portion of the blame, and the lingering question was always when would she step up.

Tokyo was Fleming's coming out party, as she produced at the very highest level when it meant the most — she scored the winner against the U.S. in the semifinals, the tying goal in regulation time against the Swedes, and converted again the spot in the shootout.

Beyond that, she marshalled Canada's midfield by pulling the creative strings throughout the tournament. If ever there was a time to start building the team around her, this would appear to be it.

There will be other tough decisions for Priestman to make going forward.

Should Labbé continue to start ahead of Sheridan? How will the front line take shape should Sinclair hang up her cleats? Is Ashley Lawrence better suited to play as a fullback or midfielder?

But with a promising group of youngsters and a crop of experienced internationals who are still in their 20s, Bev Priestman's Canadian side looks poised for long-term success.

WATCH | Relive the emotion of Canada's gold-medal victory:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for a number of media outlets, including CBC Sports, Sportsnet and Sun Media. During his time at CBC Sports, John travelled to South Africa to cover the 2010 FIFA World Cup for CBCSports.ca. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of the Canadian game.

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